Is There Room for Me?   Leave a comment

Mazie, our white spitz mix, sat on the floor in front of the love seat, wistfully eyeing a narrow spot between Kimberly and me.  Mitts likes to sit on our laps, which makes room for both dogs, but he sometimes spills into the gap, and he guards his personal space with warning growls.  Kimberly pulled Mitts over a bit, slapped the empty space, and urged the timid Mazie, “There’s room for you!”  Then turning to me she added, “That’s our family motto: ‘There’s room for you.’  It may feel uncomfortable or even scary, but we always make room for each other.”

When I make room for others in my space, I have to adjust.  Their preferences, priorities, viewpoints, and feelings all stick out in odd shapes that don’t fit well with mine. What they say or do may upset me, and in defense I may push back, growl to make them stop.  We make relationships “work” by excluding the parts that are at odds–go silent about politics and religion and the morality of disposable diapers.  After repeatedly hitting the same potholes of conflict, we learn to steer around them, thinking that smoother relationships are better relationships.  But this dance of avoidance hides our true selves, and our deep need for connection goes unmet.

Family and marriage is the quintessential formative ground for these dynamics.  We are most vulnerable here, with the greatest potential for harming or healing.  And the redemptive way forward is no Hallmark movie.  The “precious moments” of marriage, the things that make it rich and rewarding and powerful, are not warm fuzzies but cold pricklies.  It is not romance that makes a marriage great, but the frustrations, fears, and foolishness responded to with stumbling grace.  We build a marriage by the messy process of learning to embrace our real selves with all its brokenness.  This shared grace is the foundation of trust on which every deep relationship is built.  Because the two of us are weak and fearful, we sometimes fail, but we always return to this core value: “There’s room for you.”

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You Can’t See Your Own Nose Without a Mirror   Leave a comment

Isn’t it odd how we are often the last ones to realize the obvious about ourselves?  You may have spotted a theme that has been bubbling up through my posts recently, but I didn’t notice it until a few days ago: anger.   It is one of my defense mechanisms, so reflexive and short-lived that I often don’t notice it or I pass it off as a normal response.  In fact, it was a major piece of armor for my whole family, our shield against a sudden sense of danger, so quickly deployed that it even parried our sense of vulnerability.  Like so many family traits, it was carefully disguised–no shouting, name-calling, or slamming doors, but an intense burning that everyone felt without being able to name.  When I stumbled on Harriet Lerner’s The Dance of Anger, it turned on the lights for me, so much so that I bought every sibling a copy for Christmas.

Many years ago I realized that an unexpected burst of anger is a telltale sign that I feel under attack, not from the incident itself, which is just a release valve, but from the pressure of turmoil building inside my heart, a festering wound that needs attention.  I don’t need a scolding, but a warm compress of grace–I need to locate the wound and apply self-compassion.

I have known for some months that my emotions were foundering, but it was a gradual, insidious tide that crept up past the gunwales without any alarms sounding.  Who doesn’t get mad at selfish drivers?  Who doesn’t get pissed at overbearing customers or lazy co-workers?  It seemed normal… except that it wasn’t.

The slowly building tension came from a big drop in income, a stressful job, and even an unsafe home (our cars have been rifled more than once, and I caught a burglar trying to get into our house).   The major soul cost has been a loss of even a minimal support structure–my low-wage job works me till 11 p.m. and on weekends, blocking me from making social connections here.  And when the scales are already heavily offset, even small weights added seem unbearable.  It becomes hard to do simple daily tasks, not to speak of the huge effort to overcome our current set of circumstances.

None of that is going to change soon.  It needs to change for life to be sustainable, but in the meantime I need to lean into self-support, be conscious of my pain in specific ways and direct compassion to myself as I would to any dear, suffering friend whom I love.

 

Posted July 13, 2017 by janathangrace in Personal

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FEAR   2 comments

I am afraid.  It’s been going on for some time now, but I just now realized it because I’m a newbie to this feeling.  All my life I’ve lived fearlessly, without regard to personal consequences, at least regarding major life decisions–where to live, what job to take, what insurance to buy.  Being single, I had no one to answer to, no one whose life would be affected by the turns I took–right or wrong–no one I had to look out for.  It wasn’t from a confidence in my success, but in a stubborn disdain of worst case scenarios–I’d do fine sleeping on the street and scrounging food out of the garbage.  What’s the big deal?

I had a whole way of doing life that was completely sustainable when I was on my own.  Then I got married.  to a person who has a very different approach to life and money and jobs and everything.  She is not high maintenance at all, but she would be unhappy sleeping in an abandoned storefront and eating dumpster Dominos.  So we have to aim a little higher and actually consider risk.  I fear that if I push for us to take a big risk and it fails, whether it collapses suddenly or through years of decay (both of which have their own unique awfulness), I will be at fault.

And we are both spent emotionally.  We have very little psychic capital to use on new adventures, and if we get half-way in and run out of initiative, or the route ends up being twice as long or twice as difficult as we had planned in rationing our energy, or the road we take is a dead-end and we run out of both money and options, or….

What she needs to sustain her life is quite different from what I need.  As just one example, the kind of work I have is far more important to me, and the environment we live in is far more important to her.  We have very different needs for stability, security, community, challenge, and everything else.  But with limited funds, our needs can be in direct competition.  If we must sacrifice, how do we divvy that up?  It is not an incidental wish list for either of us, but a question of sustainable living.  Should she be miserable or should I? (Which is not a genuine question, because if either of us is miserable, we both are.  That’s the nature of love.)  How do you measure the respective burdens?  Or should one of us be miserable in the short term so we can get to a better place?  How miserable?  Because a certain level of misery is not sustainable even in the short term… and what is “short term”… and what if it takes longer to get to a better place?  AAArrrgh!

I see we have a big discussion ahead of us.  At least I now know what it is about.

Posted June 29, 2017 by janathangrace in Personal

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Still Untangling a Confused Life   12 comments

When I stepped through the gate of adulthood, I turned the wrong direction, and with the best of intentions, trudged deeper and deeper into the wilderness.  I should have gone into teaching Bible or Theology–it was my gift and my joy–but I was told that missionary evangelism was God’s real calling.  At the age of 40 I discovered my whole worldview was cracked, and I started over, trying to understand life from the viewpoint of grace.  I did my best to recalibrate my life’s occupational trajectory, but seemed to keep getting it wrong.  I tried pastoring, then social work, and though they were both fulfilling, the structure in each demanded that I deny my true self in order to succeed.  In the end, I was forced to leave because the pressure to conform was too great for me to bear, and I began to languish.

I was deep into midlife when I ran out of meaningful work and had to settle for something uninspiring that would meet our basic expenses.  That has proven harder than expected.  All my education and experience is of no use to land a professional job in another field.  I now realize I have to get more training or education just to find work that will cover our simple lifestyle (almost half my wages now go to health insurance alone), and that means years of effort and tens of thousands of dollars in costs just to start applying for jobs… jobs I may hate after all the effort.

Becoming a college teacher would require a Ph.D., and there is a huge market surplus of competition to contend with, and I would be in my 60s and just starting out, a very dire prospect.  Since becoming an electrician or plumber would take just as much time and money as other professions (yes, I looked into it), I have been thinking of getting my M.A. in counseling (since my other joy in life is connecting redemptively in a deep way with others).  I haven’t done well so far in every effort to reconfigure my life, so this too could be a misadventure.  We are thinking and praying.

 

Posted June 27, 2017 by janathangrace in Life

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The Self Made Man Deflects Grace   1 comment

We Americans are strikingly individualistic, even inventing self-contradictory proverbs to make our point.  “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” we say as though sheer effort can somehow overturn the law of gravity.   This outlook even molds our view of spirituality, which we see as something personal and private, between me and God.  We turn what is quintessentially a collective, integrated, synergistic  venture–the church–into a gathering of individuals, largely disconnected personally.  Henry doesn’t know that John’s marriage is crumbling or that Karen’s fifth grader is desperately struggling with depression.

This individualistic mindset is especially detrimental to grace.  Grace, like patty-cakes, is not something we can do on our own.  It is not something we “claim,” but something we are given… there must be another to offer us grace.  Gifts are never earned or won or conquered or they would cease to be gifts.  It is true that all grace originates with God, but his primary means of delivering that grace to us is through people.  We are all bearers of his light of grace, sharing our small, flickering flame with those whose wick has whiffed out.  God came down to us once in flesh that could touch and hear and comfort us, but that was 2000 years ago, and since then, his body has taken on the form of our fellow humans.

This it at once a great responsibility and an amazing privilege–to be the voice and hands and heart of God to our fellows, and them to us.  None of us do it perfectly, perhaps not even particularly well, but we each have an indispensable role to play in the redemptive journey we are all on together.  We depend on each other for our core heart needs to be met, and we suffer deeply when we cannot connect in mutually supportive relationships.  Failing those redemptive relationships, we must do our best to welcome with hope those small tastes of it, the little gestures of goodwill that come our way.

Posted June 26, 2017 by janathangrace in thoughts

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My Angry Legalism   2 comments

I am not a gracious person by nature.  Among other flaws, I have a strong undertow of anger that side-eyes anyone who steps outside the bounds.  Just yesterday I accelerated from a stop light and then slowed into the left turn lane when a car darted out from a gas station to my left, forcing me to swerve.  He was trying to beat the traffic coming the opposite way, no doubt expecting me to keep accelerating so that he could swing in behind me.  He stopped, straddling lanes in both directions, and as I passed, I raised my hand at him and mouthed “WHAT?!”

As much as I treasure grace, it is not my default.  My go-to is still legalism and anger and judgment.  They are reflexive both in me and at others, and I have to talk myself out of it, like explaining for the hundredth time to a child why he shouldn’t chase the ball into the street.  It takes hundreds of explanations not because he misunderstands or disagrees, but because in that moment he’s fixated on the ball.  Unfortunately, some undercurrents in us are more complex or more rooted or more hidden.  Anger and blame were a moral right in our family when I was growing up so I don’t even have that self-conscious check in my spirit–it doesn’t feel wrong.  It wasn’t baked into my conscience as guilt inducing… or rather it was baked into my conscience as legitimate and righteous, unless it is excessive.

But if I conclude that my problem is simply an excess–that irritation is okay, but not spitting–then legalism wins.  I reduce everything to behavior and never bother to ask the vital question, “Why do I feel so angry?”  My anger or my expression of it is not the real problem, but the symptom, like a check engine light.

In this case, the diagnosis is complex.  I have bought into a legalistic system in which we all live within certain parameters, and we keep one another in line by penalizing line-breakers: shirkers, cheaters, moochers, and bad drivers.  I work hard to stay within the lines, knowing the whole system will collapse if we don’t all conform, so I am heavily invested in everyone following the rules.

I’m not curious about why they cross the line.  Perhaps they lay down the lines differently or they are dodging the opposite line or they don’t prioritize this line.  Maybe they are struggling too much to care about lines.  All of that looks like so many bad excuses to me–get back in line and then we’ll talk about your issues.  This overriding sense of legalistic suppression comes out against myself also in self-condemnation for crossing lines, especially if it hurts or inconveniences others.

I absorbed my dad’s view that it was personally insulting for someone to cross the line in a way that blocked our goals or intentions.  It showed that they disrespected us, not caring how their behavior impacted us, which poked at our insecurity in our behavior-based worth.  Since we were unaware of our anger except under occasional provocations, we blamed the other for “making us angry” as though anger came from outside and not from within as self-defense against a perceived slight.  Seen empathetically, my anger is a cry of fear that my very worth is being threatened by every assumed mistreatment–I must judge you to deflect my own sense of inadequacy.

Sadly, it is this very judging that maintains the legalistic system that keeps me running from my shame and away from grace.  Not only when I am mean, but every time I do something stupid or careless or off-kilter, I shame myself into better efforts because I am sure that doing it right is the measure of my worth.  And with that system, I judge the worth of others by what they do.  We are all trapped, and keep each other trapped, like crabs in a bucket that keep pulling down the ones trying to escape.  Grace is all of a piece–we all get it or none of us do.  When we start measuring out who is “worthy” of grace, we have slipped back into legalism again.  So giving grace to other drivers (or neighbors or colleagues), real grace, not forced and grudging but free and affirming,  is my best path to accepting grace for myself as well.  Let grace reign.

Posted June 24, 2017 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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12 Steps for Growing True Relationships   Leave a comment

  1. Establishing an environment of grace.  Unless someone feels safe to share and explore their own viewpoints with a non-judgmental and supportive listener, they cannot be honest even with themselves, and especially not with the other person.  This is quite tricky in close relationships because we get enmeshed in our own issues, are blind to our underlying assumptions, and confuse support with other problematic responses (such as the tendency to ‘fix’ or rescue or diagnose).  It can get messy–sometimes the focus must switch from the original topic to the current hurtful dynamic–but if we keep flailing towards the goal, we will learn a little through each encounter.
  2. Sharing vulnerably.  We can only share vulnerably in an environment made safe by grace, but unless we share the things that we guard most closely to our hearts, we cannot go very deep in relationship and mutual understanding.  It is our fear, often stoked by self-condemnation, that prevents us from sharing at the level that breaks through the surface to the core of ourselves.  Sometimes this fear leaks out as sarcasm, blame-shifting, or other ways of self-protection.  Vulnerability is especially hard if the listener incites these fears so that they react to our sharing in self-defense.  Sometimes a third-party can help in “translation.”
  3. Supporting ourselves.  We cannot make the other person responsible for our safety or support, which is a subtle form of co-dependence.  This means I must go at my own pace in self-revelation, not risking more than I can bear in vulnerability.  Of course I can be aided in this effort by the listener, by their gentleness, affirmation, and support, but ultimately I must stand up for myself by establishing healthy boundaries and a pace and level of vulnerable sharing that is sustainable.
  4. Sharing responsibility.  It is not possible to go deep in relationship with someone who is unwilling or unable to respond in kind.  Vulnerability must match vulnerability, depth match depth, grace match grace.  Of course any of these may come more easily to one party, so it is the effort or commitment of each that is matched, not the content. A person may value self-discovery enough to share in a one-sided way, but if it is not matched, it does not deepen real relationship.
  5. Giving mutual respect.  When one position is privileged over the other, it becomes very difficult to find any insight that does not simply support and expand that perception.  If one person is presumed to be “right” because of greater experience, insight, knowledge, etc. or because of accepted norms, the process will be undermined.  The experiences, feelings, and viewpoints of both parties must be accepted as equally valid–after all, the key does not lie in these perceptions, but in what underlies them, and we cannot reach these hidden roots unless we are sympathetic to what is shows above ground.  This is as true for ourselves as for the other–out of hand dismissal or critique will kill the process.  (We also have no basis for judging without understanding these foundations). This openness is not easy to do, especially if one is more assertive than the other, but real understanding depends on it.
  6. Discerning Subconscious systems.  The focus is always on deeper understanding, discovering the root system beliefs that establish our conscious behaviors, thoughts, and feelings.  This means working to understand the subconscious presuppositions from which our feelings and views flow, otherwise we are stuck on the surface, unable to grow personally and relationally in transformational ways.  The question “Why?” repeated (like two-year-olds!) at deeper and deeper levels is key to this process until a whole integrated system is revealed: values, priorities, fears, safety nets, and the like.
  7. Identifying family-of-origin values and dynamics.  This is a huge asset in self-discovery.  The most profound and opaque engine of our viewpoint is how we were raised, not the actual teaching of values (though that also counts), but the unspoken and unrecognized values out of which the relational dynamics were formed.
  8. Placing our role in the family.  After we begin to discover the overall picture, we begin to see how we fit into that schema–were we compliant or rebellious?  Over what issues?  Did we take more after our mother or father?  Regarding which values and with what impact on ourselves and our family relationships?  How did our siblings impact us and the family dynamics?  What did we hide from our families and why?  Who were we closest to (or fearful of) and why?
  9. Understanding our personalities.  Our families’ values are filtered into and out of us through our unique personalities.  We may be confident or doubtful, introverted or extroverted, pensive or active, cautious or adventurous, and each aspect causes us to respond to family values in different ways.  Our personality has a huge impact on our belief structures, self-perception, and relational patterns.
  10. Being patient with the process.  The more foreign to our minds or objectionable and threatening to our thoughts and feelings, the more the effort required and the longer the time frame to reach a new level of discernment.  All explanations are tentative until a system begins to form through repetitive confirming discoveries.  Our hearts can only go at a certain speed and to push them to go faster will undermine the process. It is the most difficult conflicts in our relationship that touch our most important beliefs, so these are key, but we may have to gradually work up to them.
  11. Using coping strategies in a healthy way.  Our coping mechanisms (people-pleasing, controlling, withdrawing, etc.) are crutches to help us heal.  They protect us from too much vulnerability that would set us back in our growth process.  But if we use them to avoid growth, our spiritual muscles atrophy, our personal and relational growth is stunted.  We need to push ourselves into what is uncomfortable, challenging, even scary, but not so far that we injure ourselves by pushing past our sustainable limits.  Most importantly we should recognize when we are using coping mechanisms and why–be conscious, deliberate, and strategic in their use rather than slipping into them by default without noticing.
  12. Finding support.  There are many sources of support and direction for this process: books, podcasts, friends, counselors, self-reflection, exercises, etc.  Support may come from the relationship in question, but often there is so much tension there when discussing conflicting feelings and views that outside support is needed. Pseudo-support is especially dangerous, posing as “for your good,” but ending up making us feel worse about ourselves (or feeling better like an opioid).  With less support, the process will take longer.

Posted June 8, 2017 by janathangrace in thoughts

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